Category Archives: posthuman/posthumanism

Human Enhancement in Theory, Practice and Superhero Comics 1: Human Head Transplants

Hello humans.

Welcome to the first of new series of posts where I highlight how some specific human enhancement technologies have been developed, their real world applications, their philosophical implications and how these have played out in the pages of the superhero comic book. So if what you really want to see are pictures comic book characters who have had their heads transplanted then scroll on down, because there is going to be plenty of it.

For those of you hanging around still, here’s a bit of context. If you follow this blog then you’ll already know that my name is Dr Scott Jeffery and that my PhD thesis was on the posthuman body in superhero comics (for a condensed version of the main ideas click here). Anyway, a book that draws on the thesis but is less painfully academic (I want to say it’s ‘accessible’, but that I suppose, is a question of taste) is on its way in early 2016 (more details as and when). In the meantime, as I was editing and rewriting it occurred to me that the book doesn’t really focus on specific technologies as such. So for this new series I want to go into more detail about specific technologies and how they have been presented in posthuman theory, practice and superhero comics. Saying that, this is still the blog, so the depth and breadth of each of these articles will probably vary somewhat.

We start with one that is not mentioned at all in the book but has recently been making its rounds on the hive-mind of social media: human head transplants.
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What’s the point of big ideas?

Scott Jeffery (noun):  Carbon-based biped of Earth. Has a PhD and teaches sociology. Often wonders how this happened.

First things first, I never expected to become an academic. When I was young I was told I was smart, perhaps very smart, but that never really translated into academic achievement. What I did know, even as a very young kid, was that I loved big ideas. Give me a big philosophical concept-Why are we here? What is reality? What is the purpose of art? – And I was happy as a pig in shit. If the shit was made out of abstract philosophical concepts. (Feces – Antifeces – Synfeces. The Hegelian Diarrhoealectic)

To me, knowledge was a kind of food. An idle thought, that’s like a starter, and then a theory, that’s your main course. For pudding I might have a hypothesis. Notions and conceits, they’re like a light-snack, something you might have for supper. The point is I dug philosophy and art and poetry and foreign films and just thinking and talking about big ideas. I didn’t JUST like those things, I liked a lot of stupid, ephemeral shit as well, but my favourite thing was when those two worlds collided. Really smart, stupid shit. Like Monty Python or Woody Allen or that Daffy Duck cartoon where he’s talking to the animator and keeps getting rubbed out and redrawn (by the way, it’s called Duck Amuck and you can watch it here).

My point being, I loved all that shit already. In my own time. For fun. School wasn’t a place where you learned, it was a place that distracted you from learning.

(I’m being overly emphatic by the way. I did have good teachers, great teachers even, but this is a blog post not a peer-reviewed journal article so get off my back, lady!)

So I didn’t get school. School, as any sane child knows, is boring. My entire early education was marked by could-try-harder syndrome. I don’t know if that’s a real thing, I just made it up. If I liked a project and wanted to do it then I would produce outlandishly detailed presentations like a ten-page critique of the history of censorship when I was thirteen. Of course, it helped that I had a love of horror movies, so I had an emotional stake in whether the British Board of Film classification wanted to stop me seeing splinter go into someone’s eye (which I totally did) but still, this was in the days before the internet, so a guy had to go out of his way to research that shit properly, dig? Continue reading


Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 3: Robots, cyborgs, posthumans

In this final part I want to investigate one final common assumption-that there is a fundamental difference between the artificial robot and the natural human being. In reality the lines between the biological and the machinic have been blurred for some time, and any future scenario must acknowledge that rather than the quaint sci-fi B-movie vision of a world of easily distinguishable humans and robots, we must also account for the possibility of cyborgian hybrids of flesh and technology. This corporeal transformation, coupled with the societal impacts of robotics can be seen as paving the way for an effectively posthuman future.

Which, if you’ve never read my blog before, I think sounds brilliant fun. Having written  a fair bit about posthumanism on this blog  I’m not going to try and sum it up here. Instead, let’s just keep that background knowledge in mind while considering some concrete examples of the cyborg in action, because just like robots cyborgs are creatures of social fact as much as science-fiction.

Starting small, how about some remote controlled insects?

Or this monkey controlling a prosthetic arm with its own brain. By the way, if you’ve been reading these posts and quietly worrying about the robot uprising, I hope you will now include roving armies of techno-monkeys and swarms of insectobots into your paranoid and pessimistic fantasies. Continue reading


Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 2: Let the machines do the work

Kneel, puny humans, before the might of Noodle-Bot!

Kneel, puny humans, before the might of Noodle-Bot!

After a brief overview of robots and their form and history in Part One, this post consider the place of robots in industrial economies.  In many respects, the history of the robot is inextricably linked to questions of work and labour. The first use of the word robot was in RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 play by the Cheokslavkian Karel Capek . As Dennis G. Jerz points out, “the Czech word robota means “drudgery” or “servitude”; a robotnik is a peasant or serf.” This link between the robot as worker or labourer is also found in Fritz Lang’s  Metropolis (1927) in which the robot Maria serves as a catalyst for a proletariat revolution. The connection between machine and wage-slave is even implicit in Marx and Engel’s 1848 Communist manifesto in which they warn that, “owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine“. There remains the possibility that industrial robots might one day gain sentience in which case the robot uprising will be less like The Terminator and more like Battleship Potemkin.

Setting the question of robots developing class-consciousness aside (its difficult, I know, but let’s try) we first need a better understanding of just how common the use of industrial robots has become.While we might still be startled to see a robot trundling down the street it is easy to forget the robots are everywhere, often out of sight, whirring away feverishly in factories and warehouses. As the roboticist and human friend Dr Tom Larkworthy once astutely noted, “most robots are just arms“.

A few decades ago this was pretty whizz-bang stuff, as in Hugh Hudson’s iconic ‘Hand Built by Robots‘ advert for the Fiat Strada in 1979:

What once inspired awe and fascination is now taken for granted, if considered at all, but since Hudson’s hymn to the workerless factory the use of industrial robots has increased significantly. In October 2000, the UN estimated there to be 742, 500 industrial robots in use; more than half of which were being used in Japan. By 2011, According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) study World Robotics 2012, there were at least 1,153,000 operational industrial robots and  estimated to reach 1,575,000 by the end of 2015. The annual turnover for robot systems was estimated to be US$25.5 billion in 2011.  (thanks wikipedia!) Continue reading


Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 1

For many humans, perhaps most, the term ‘robot’ brings to mind images from popular culture; a C-3PO, maybe, or, according to your age, Metal Mickey (see video above) or Robby the Robot . Den of Geek has an entertaining Top 50  Robots and AI Computers in the movies if you need more choices. One by-product of this reliance on fiction to give us our visions of robotics is that many people forget that robots are, you know, REAL. Some anecdotal evidence: I once introduced one freind to another by pointing out that he built robots. The first friend expressed disbelief, stating her conviction that robots were the stuff of science-fiction, and the presence of a living, breathing roboticist before her would not dissuade her of that belief.

This is not an usual assumption. It’s easy to forget that we live in the 21st century, or, as I like to call it, THE FUTURE! Truth is, robots are everywhere nowadays, and their presence is only going to increase. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but in order to understand the rise of the machines and what it means for the human race, we first need to address some common assumptions about robots. As such, this here Part One of Robots! Robots! Robots! sets out to demonstrate that 1) robots are not from the future but  have been with us since the Ancients; 2) contrary to film and television’s default depiction, most robots do not look like humans; and 3) robots are not going to kill us all (but humans using robots might do). Part Two discusses the social and economic implications of our robot world, while Part Three investigates the more radical Post/Human possibilities.

Let’s get started… Continue reading


Thesis Review Part Three: Reader-text assemblages

Part One of this ‘thesis review’ introduced the philosophical and theoretical concepts that guided the research undertaken in my thesis. Part Two elaborated upon these ideas- paying particular attention to the concept of the rhizome-and suggested that the field of Comics Studies could be considered as rhizomatic. It then went on to demonstrate how approaches to studying superheroes that utilised structuralist theories and/or analysed the superhero comic in terms of representation and ideology could be understood as broadly humanist and based on an arboreal model of knowledge whereby the ‘meaning’ of the superhero could be reduced to a single explanatory trunk. It then went on to argue for a Post/Humanist approach to superhero comics that, rather than an arboreal model, adopted a rhizomatic approach. To aid this understanding a cultural history of the posthuman body in superhero comic was adopted. It was then demonstrated how this moves the analysis of the superhero away from ideology by understanding the development of the superhero through the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comic books in terms of historically situated assemblages.

 If the rhizomatic cultural history was suggested as a theoretical corrective to the limitations of ideological analyses then it was also important to address the implied reader at the mercy of ideology in these approaches. As such my thesis involved another strand in which I interviewed comic book readers about their views on the superhero and posthumanism more generally. This was seen as a methodological corrective to the problems outlined in Part Two.

In this section then I intend to familiarise the reader with historical approaches to the question of texts and reader/audiences. Having done this I next offer a model of text-reader relations that draws on the concept of assemblages outlined in Part One. Because of the ethical issues involved and the fact it’s not officially complete yet I will not be presenting the data from my interviews here on the blog at this time. Instead this review presents a brief history of audience studies, highlighting some of the dualities that have informed scholarly understanding of reader/text relations, and how these dualities follow on from the same historically established philosophical dualities that critical Post/Humanism is generally engaged in critiquing. As such I offer a model of reader-text relations as an assemblage, illustrated by a brief overview of historically situated comic-reader assemblages in the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comics. Continue reading


Grinders, hackers and makers versus the “grim meathook future”

In an interesting rumination at transhumanblog the author muses that:

As the imminent emergence of a transhuman society begins to take to shape and moves increasingly from the realm of theory to fact, transhumanists and futurists are going to have to start asking some hard questions. No longer can we focus simply on the technological challenges of creating such a future, but we must also consider what those technologies imply for society and the international community. Much has been written and said about the threat of uneven distribution of these technologies…Little has been done to address these concerns though, and what has been done tends to focus on inequality within the developed nations that most futurists are from.

This is an interesting point and worth elaborating upon. Hence this post. The author above is right to raise the point that such critiques “focus on inequality within the developed nations that most futurists are from“. Given that the libertarian technological utopia espoused by some transhumanists is only made possible by a globalised economy we would do well to address the question of global disparities. As the author above goes on to write:

it is of paramount importance that we focus strong attention on the technological and infrastructural gap that exists been post-industrial and developing nations. Unless we take strong, positive action to address these issues, transhumanism will not be the global revolution we hope it to be, and we will instead take the form of the techno-oligarchs that we fear.

In a similar register Joshua Ellis has noted that:

There are nearly a billion Facebook users in the world, and half a billion Twitter users (though of course there’s probably nearly a 90% overlap between those two). Those are indeed astonishing numbers, but the problem is that sometime around March 12, 2012, we passed seven billion people living on Earth. That means that the vast majority of humans aren’t on Facebook or Twitter. The majority of people have mobile phones, but there are more people still who don’t have mobile phones than use Facebook.

Most of us never see these people, of course, except as faces briefly glimpsed in the background of news footage. They are outside our Big Room. Not because we’re intentionally keeping them out, you understand; at least, not really on any overt institutional level. Basically. We don’t do that any more, and we feel good about it.

It’s just that living in the Big Room is expensive, you see…and, well, these people can’t afford it. They don’t have Facebook because they can’t afford the technological artifacts that would allow them to be on Facebook. They don’t tweet about how much the new version of iOS sucks, because they don’t have any way to tweet and they damn sure don’t have a device that will run iOS, because these devices cost more than these people often make in a year.

For all the utopian dreaming of  transhumanist philosophers it remains the case that much of it remains rooted in a Western libertarian tradition. Continue reading


Thesis Review Part Two: Superheroes, rhizomes, representation and ideology

Welcome to part two of my thesis autopsy, where I pick apart the first draft of my PhD and try to remember just exactly what it was I was trying to study when I began. As always, this is the blog and not the thesis itself so while there’s a lot of references in what follows its also likely to slip into a more conversational style. Let’s just jump straight in.

My thesis began with two broad questions: what could the development of the superhero tell us about posthumanism, and how did readers of superhero comics relate to the posthuman? In Part One of this thesis review I pointed out that answering those questions first required clarifying the epistemological and ontological assumptions underlying them. So it was that Part One introduced several concepts borrowed from Delueze and Guattari that served as the theoretical guide for undertaking this research project. In this part I want to re-introduce Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome (touched on briefly in part one) and how it differs from traditional models of thought and culture.

 These ideas will then be illustrated through a discussion of the filed of Comics Studies as rhizome, and also how many scholars approaching the superhero have relied on structuralist analyse (often accompanied by an ideological critique). Such approaches, whether positive or negative in their final reading of the ‘meaning’ of the superhero, are presented as arboreal or tree-like. I argue that such approaches can be characterised as Humanist. The rhizome is then offered as an alternative, Post/Humanist model for thinking about superheroes.

The article then goes on discuss how Foucault’s notion of discourse operates within a rhizome. Several theoretical (and occasionally methodological) objections are raised to move comics analysis away from questions of representation and identity politics, and an argument put forth for the production of a rhizomatic cultural history of the posthuman superhero body.

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Thesis Review Part One: Assemblages and Rhizomes

Hello you! There’s been no blog posts for a while. Comedy and academia have been eating up my time. In a few days time (Friday 15th to be exact) the world premier of Woodward and Jeffery: Laughter on the Outskirts will be on at the Leicester Comedy Festival. This looming comedy deadline has had the added benefit of forcing me to go full pelt at completing a draft of my thesis beforehand. (UPDATE: It’s been and gone and I wrote about it here).

It’s been a long three years, and its not over yet. But with a full initial draft of my snappily titled thesis Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Comics finally in the bag, now seems a good time to present some of the ideas from it on the blog. A ‘thesis review’ where the monster’s still dying corpse can be dissected and unimaginable, as-yet-unnamed organs extracted from its still-warm carcass and held up to the light: “Now look what we have here”, I will say, rubbing the ungodly creature’s black blood on my lab coat.  As ever, the reader is forewarned that this is the blog and not the thesis itself, so expect a potentially unpalatable mix of personal literary style and academic writing. Although to be fair if you are still with me after the whole monster autopsy thing then we’ll probably be okay. So lets begin.

In short I set out three and a bit years ago (or perhaps 34) to investigate two related questions. Firstly, how had the figure of the posthuman body developed in superhero comics? Or to put it more accurately, in what ways did the development of the superhero relate to a wider discourse of the posthuman body? A discussion of how the posthuman body of the superhero has developed can be found elsewhere on the blog (here and here) so will only be touched on occasionally in this piece

Secondly, I wanted to know what sense comic book readers made of the posthuman body. For example, did a familiarity with the superhero genre make one more or less amenable to the idea of human enhancement as espoused by Transhumanism? The question of reader-text relationships is addressed briefly below but the more elaborate discussion it requires will have to wait until Part Three of this series. Part Two takes the theoretical concepts presented below and demonstrates the advantages of applying them to the study of superhero comics.

In Part One of this ‘thesis review’ I instead want to present some of the philosophical concepts that informed the approach I took in my thesis to the posthuman body in terms of both theory and methodology. Or to put it another way, the following discussion is about what separates a ‘critical analysis’ or ‘cultural theory’ of superhero comics from, say, reviewing them. Long story short: the questions of how superheroes have developed and what readers get from them are not simple to answer. Or, rather, may lead to a multitude of, often potentially conflicting, answers to those questions depending on the assumptions the questioner starts out with. As such this article lays out my epistemological and ontological framework.

As Voltaire once said, “if you wish to converse with me, first define your terms”.

Ready to define some terms? Let’s go!

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Man, if only there were a list of Posthuman Documentaries…

I thought it might be useful and entertaining to compile a list of documentaries that deal with posthumanism/transhumanism. Being absurdly busy with finishing up the PhD and gearing up for the Edinburgh Festival I haven’t bothered with any commentary on them but hopefully its useful to have them all gathered in one place. Suffice it to say that naturally they vary in detail and focus but never the less anyone wishing to know more about the subject might want to start with these. Especially if you are too lazy to read a book. Most of them are available online so links are included. Continue reading